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Free credit scores now much easier to get

Kelly Dilworth

With card issuers and personal finance websites increasingly offering free credit scores to everyone, it’s a wonder we all aren’t tracking our scores and taking steps to improve our credit.

It’s definitely getting easier than ever to get your credit score:

In May, Discover launched Credit Scorecard, which lets you see your FICO score for free. And you don’t have to be a Discover customer.

In March, Capital One opened its CreditWise free credit scoring program to everyone, making VantageScores just a few clicks away.

Several personal finance websites, including CreditCards.com, also offer free credit scores (you can get your VantageScore at my.creditcards.com and with the new Score and Report app.)

To get and track your credit score at these card issuers and personal finance websites, you just need to share some of your personal information (which the sites promise not to sell) and answer some identity authentication questions. No credit card application or payment details are required.

Your card issuer, too, may also offer free credit scores and trackers as a perk. Since Discover began offering free FICO scores to Discover cardholders in 2013, more than a dozen card issuers, including Chase, American Express, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Barclaycard and Citi have begun offering free scores.

That’s a huge change from a few years ago when only a few sites offered general “educational” scores that were different from the FICO and VantageScore seen by lenders.

And with so many ways to get your credit score, there’s no longer any reason to pay to see your score.

How easy are these free credit scoring programs to use? In the space of an hour, I managed to access three bona fide credit scores, including my FICO score, without paying a dime.

Credit scores still can be confusing
While credit scores are more available, it’s not always easy to make sense of all the scores and trackers.

For example, what’s the difference between the two scoring systems?

FICO is the most well-known and widely used credit score. It takes into account your traditional credit history, such as your payment and account history and the mix of credit you’ve used.

The new VantageScore considers much of the same information, but it’s more lenient with some data points — for example, it ignores paid collection accounts — and it may also consider nontraditional information, such as utilities, if you don’t have much of a credit history.

Banks and personal finance sites have tried to reduce customer confusion by loading their free credit score programs with a wealth of information explaining the scores and what specific factors affect them. But even with the extra information, it can still be mystifying to evaluate the scores and try to compare them.

I’ve been following credit scoring for a long time, and even I became temporarily overwhelmed by the websites’ custom explanations and by the surprisingly big differences between my scores.

My VantageScore, for example, says my credit is “excellent,” but FICO and Equifax say it’s merely “good.” There’s also a 46-point difference in my scores thanks to subtle differences in how the scoring companies calculate them — even though they’re essentially based on the same information.

To improve my scores, I apparently need to live longer (my oldest ‘open’ account is less than a decade old) and stop closing unused accounts. It seems I also need to take out more credit than I need, which, for many people, sounds counterintuitive. Shouldn’t I be rewarded for conservatively sticking to just a few cards?

Having access to all my credit information at my fingertips is empowering. It may not be long before I’m hooked on following my score and trying to improve it.

Keeping credit score in our home
When my husband first signed up for credit score monitoring through his USAA card, he too questioned why his score was being dinged for conservative behavior — and what he could do about that.

Over the past several months, he’s become savvier than ever about his credit score, which recently topped mine by more than 50 points. He’s more aggressive about asking for credit limit increases, and now he checks his score regularly.

For the most part, what he’s doing is a good thing, but it also underscores just how risky it can be to try to improve your score.

Asking for a credit limit increase and opening more cards can be an effective way to boost your credit score — particularly if you already pay all your bills on time and are trying to build a richer credit history.

Just be sure you don’t overdo it. Research shows that when people are given bigger credit limits, they don’t usually let that unused credit sit. Instead, many people wind up spending more and using up more credit.

If you keep applying for more credit than you need just to keep up a good score, you may one day find yourself accidentally charging more than you can afford.

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